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Companies should stop playing Chinese Whispers

At a glance

Companies struggle to understand what their customers really want. One reason is that organizations tend to distort customer input at two key moments: when they talk to customers and when the customer findings are passed on internally. In other words: They play Chinese Whispers. Jobs-to-be-done and a concept called Value Metrics help to prevent this from happening.

Everyone knows the popular Chinese Whispers game we all played as kids. Someone starts to whisper a message to the next person so that no one else hears it. This person has to pass it on to the next person until full-circle. Once the message comes back to its origin, the first person says the original message and what was actually whispered to her. The result is always the same: Whatever the message in the beginning was, it’s now completely different from the original.

This analogy illustrates what happens when customer input is gathered and passed on through a large organisation. A comparison between the initial input and the final conclusion reveals strong discrepancies. As a result, innovation efforts – thought to be based on authentic customer input – are misguided. Marketing messages do not resonate with customers.

What is going wrong?

Customers are real human beings. They use products or services for concrete problems and under real circumstances. On the other hand, companies are organizational entities. To function, they use abstractions and simplifications when trying to understand and solve problems. Why? Because first, not enough time is taken or available to think about customer problems in a detailed way and to discuss all aspects in detail. Secondly, organizations simplify and conceptualize to deal with complexity. And thirdly, thinking itself is a kind of abstraction.

Hence, there are two different worlds. On the one hand the concrete world of customers who use products and services to solve real problems. And on the other hand the abstract, simplified and clean world of organizations. The mismatch between the two worlds is one of the root causes why innovations are not accepted by customers. To win you have to get concrete, we believe that the concrete always wins over the abstract.

When is it going wrong?

There are two critical moments when customer input gets diluted and ruined: when people from an organization listen to customers and when customer input gets summarized and passed on within an organization.

Moment 1: when listening to the customer

By now, many organizations go out and talk directly to customers. This has not always been the case and is a great step forward. However, listening and understanding what customers are saying is tricky. Many common biases like selective listening, confirmation of own beliefs or stereotyping occur.

When interacting with customers and receiving an enormous amount of information, it is only natural to select and focus only on what you believe to be relevant – to abstract. The rest you forget. In fact, every human being has this tendency towards abstraction and simplification in order to survive in a complex and multifaceted world. That is a risk.

three wise apes

Here is an example from a real case, the designing of a new entertainment site:

Imagine customers trying to get into the place when it’s busy. They tell you: «It’s annoying to wait in line. I get nervous doing nothing. My kids even more so, they grouch and nag. Don’t like it!» This is instantly translated into a conclusion to eliminate waiting time. But the customer was much more precise. Her problem was not waiting per se, but «waiting doing nothing», «not getting nervous» and «kids not nagging». There are at least three different problems that could be solved differently and each would help to ease the annoyance of waiting. If the customer view is captured and categorized in abstract and vague way, you will not be able to turn that information into actions that will lead to better products or services.

Moment 2: when aligning the organization

Let’s imagine that you did your best not to abstract from the customer’s actual and concrete message. One might think that then the customer’s input has been saved from the effects of bias and abstraction.

But think back to the Chinese Whispers game at the beginning. The message gets passed along throughout the company, just like the message gets passed from one person to another person in the game. During this process, the original message gets distorted. In the game, like in a company, there is no way to trace the distortion of the message.

There are two concepts to capture customer input in a traceable, concrete way: Jobs-to-be-done and Value Metrics.


What is needed is a way to avoid bias and abstraction. Jobs-to-be-done, applied the right way, can work against bias and abstraction.

Jobs-to-be-done is a way of thinking that enjoys a growing base of enthusiasts in the world of innovation. We have been applying Jobs-to-be-done in over 100 projects over the past 15 years. The core idea of Jobs-to-be-done is that customers don’t want to buy products. What they want is to get a job done, i.e., to achieve a purpose, and buy (or hire) products to help themselves do that. Levitt encapsulated this idea: «People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole». If something else can get this job done better, customers will buy that product. For the job “to hang up a picture” customers might not even want to get a hole – tape strips or some other solution might get the job done more than well enough.

Jobs-to-be-done thinking works against one of the strongest bias innovators have: the product idea itself. In fact, when speaking to customers, your product idea is your biggest enemy. You will unconsciously abstract from what the customer said and be biased by your favorite idea.

Jobs-to-be-done thinking prevents this from happening. The only thing relevant in a customer exploration interview is what jobs customers want to get done and how well they are able to achieve those jobs. The rest is noise.

Value Metrics

But how to know if a Job is achieved well or not? The answer is a concept we call Value Metrics. Value Metrics are criteria customers apply to determine whether or not a product or a service is valuable for the job they want to get done. They are typically captured during exploratory interviews, group discussions or observational sessions. Customers use very concrete, granular criteria. It is not unusual that 200 Value Metrics per Job are applied by customers. Let’s look at some examples of Value Metrics from our entertainment case. The Job as «to visit an attraction» and three (out of more than 100) Value Metrics were:

that you have to wait in line as little as possible before getting in

that children nag as rarely as possible when waiting in line

that you feel as little nervous as possible when waiting in line

These Value Metrics were brought up in qualitative interviews by many parents. It became clear that this moment, right before getting in, is the most annoying for many, especially kids. Attractions are systematically judged to be better when they offer something to keep kids entertained while waiting. Notice that Value Metrics are solution-free, i.e., they don’t tell you how to solve an issue. Once we know the Job and the relevant Value Metrics for that Job, it becomes obvious in what ways you need to develop or improve your product. An entertainment site might try to address these Value Metrics by shortening the waiting time. Or by providing entertainment for kids at the entrance, or relaxing drinks for parents, etc. Note that some problems might be solved not by heavily investing in speeding up the waiting line (say by adding more registers), but with far simpler solutions.

value metric syntax

Value Metrics prevent from bias and abstraction in two different ways. First, the interviewer knows how to probe for very specific answers. This keeps customer input as concrete as possible and as close as possible to the customers original way of speaking. Second, because Value Metrics are solution-free, they leave very little if no room for biased interpretation. A biased interpretation that mingles customer input with existing solution ideas is prevented when being passed on within the organization. Third, they are very precise, as they all include a unit. This might be time, times an event occurs or intensity of a feeling such as nervousness. Such units ensure that Value Metrics are intersubjectively understood in the same way.

Value Metrics fight abstraction by communicating a problem and not a solution. This keeps you from biased interpretations because it keeps you in the concrete problem of your customer. When working with Value Metrics within your organization, only minimal room for interpretation and miscommunication is left. However, often it is inevitable to abstract or simplify, e.g., when communicating with management or other departments. But when Value Metrics form the basis of a summarized message, it is always possible to go back to them. In many projects we have seen that Value Metrics survive the Chinese Whispers and get discussed on management level.

Stop playing Chinese Whispers

It is key to capture customer input in a way that maximizes its utility for innovation and protects the customer’s message throughout the organization. Too often in the past, we have seen project results getting watered down when moving through organizations.

The Jobs-to-be-done thinking and the Value Metrics concept are instrumental in working against biases and our natural tendency to abstract. The innovation process has to be designed to ensure that customers have a maximum impact. This way, we can make sure that abstraction is kept in check and that new products and services resonate with customers. It is time to stop playing Chinese Whispers.

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